social history

The Help – Kathryn Stockett

[asa book]0399155341[/asa] The Help is, without a doubt, the best book I’ve read in the last year. Maybe in the last three years. It’s that good.

First, I should state clearly that I listened to it on unabridged audio before I read it, and the audiorecording is … pitch perfect. Absolutely mesmerizing. There are four voice actors, all women, who narrate the different perspectives and bring the characters to life. My suggestion would be that if the option is available to you, you first listen to this book in unabridged audio.

This is Stockett’s first novel, but it reads like the work of a well established writer. Stockett is a native of Mississippi, and that’s where this novel is set, opening in 1962. The primary white character is a young woman called Skeeter by her friends, twenty three years old and a graduate of Ole Miss, who goes home to Jackson and her family’s cotton farm only to find she’s outgrown the place. Her friends are married and her mother thinks she should be married, too, as quickly as possible, but Skeeter wants to be a writer. It’s a goal that seems entirely out of reach  until she goes to see the local newspaper editor and comes away with her first assignment — writing a housekeeping hints column.

Skeeter doesn’t know anything about housekeeping, because in Jackson in that time, middle class white families all had domestic help. She’s never had to clean a bathroom, but now she’s supposed to answer letters from women who want to know how to get a stubborn ring out of a bathtub. Skeeter’s friend Elizabeth has a maid who is very capable and approachable both, and Skeeter begins to consult with Abileen on the letters she  must answer for the column.

This is the opening to the crux of the story, because it is through this contact with Abileen that Skeeter starts to see things from the other side. An idea comes to her: she could write a book about the maids who tend white households and raise white babies, but from their perspective. It is a daring, even  shocking idea for her time and place, and it’s not something she could do alone. For this she needs not only Abileen’s help, but another eleven maids who are willing to sit down with her and tell their stories. To tell their real stories, the things that they would never, under ordinary circumstances, tell any white woman.

In Jackson in 1962, this was not a neutral proposal.  Violence toward African Americans was widespread and unapologetic, and so at first no one wants to risk life and limb and income to help Skeeter. She understands very well why the maids stay away, but she and Abileen persist and in time, win over enough maids to proceed with putting the book together.

In the course of this novel we get to know Abileen and Minnie — both maids, very different in their circumstances and histories, but best friends who support each other in very difficult times. Skeeter’s editor in New York says of  Minnie: ” She is every Southern woman’s worst nightmare. I adore her.” Collaborating on this book is something that Skeeter and the maids do under the strictest conditions of confidentiality, Skeeter’s discomfort with the attitude and practices of her closest friends increases to the point that she can no longer simply go along to get along.  She takes a stand against a ‘better hygiene’ initiative (that is, all families must put an extra bathroom in the garage for the use of black household help, because white people should not be obliged to use the same facilities as blacks). This proposal that Skeeter opposes was written by Hllly, who was once her best friend and who is now at the head of  Jackson’s social elite.  Hilly is so offended by Skeeter that she goes to great lengths to ruin her in Jackson, and succeeds. Thus Skeeter loses all her friends and is without anyone to talk to except the maids she works with in the evenings, recording their histories. The very women she cannot acknowledge or visit openly, for fear that they will suffer violent repercussions and lose their jobs.

The real magic of this novel is the way Stockett creates such distinctive narrative voices for each of the main characters. Abileen and Minnie fairly jump off the page, as does Skeeter. Stockett manages this in part because she handles the African-American vernacular of the maids — they tell their stories in first person — with absolute perfection. You can hear them speaking. And she does all that without resorting to the condescending misspellings used by so many authors.  Here’s a bit from a chapter narrated by Skeeter:

“So this is what you do on the weekends?” I asked.  “In your spare time?”  I liked the idea of capturing her life outside of work, when she wasn’t under the eye of Elizabeth Leefolt.

“Oh no, I write a hour, sometimes two ever day.  Lot a ailing, sick peoples in this town.”

I was impressed.  That was more than I wrote on some days.  I told her we’d try it just to get the project going again.

Aibileen takes a breath, a swallow of Coke, and reads on.

She backtracks to her first job at thirteen, cleaning the Francis the First silver service at the governor’s mansion.  She reads how on her first morning, she made a mistake on the chart where you filled in the number of pieces so they’d know you hadn’t stolen anything.

“I come home that morning, after I been fired, and stood outside my house with my new work shoes on.  The shoes my mama paid a month’s worth a light bill for.  I guess that’s when I understood what shame was and the color of it too.  Shame ain’t black, like dirt, like I always thought it was.  Shame be the color of a new white uniform your mother ironed all night to pay for, white without a smudge or a speck a work-dirt on it.”

This is a novel that is mostly about women, black and white, in a time when the traditional roles and relationships were beginning to change. It’s a disturbing story in many ways, but it is also a hopeful one, in the end, without any tinge of the fairytale about it. I was just so sorry to let these women go.

So I’m going to give away a copy of The Help because you need to read it. It’s not out in paper yet, but the winner will be able to chose from the following formats: hardcover, ebook, or unabridged audio (downloadable). When it does come out in trade paper, I’ll give away a couple more copies.  if you’ve already read it, please throw your name in the hat anyway and let me know what you thought of it.  You may still win, and then you’ll have a copy to give away, too.

What is Dear Abby really trying to say?

One of the best resources for the historical novelist (at least, for those writing stories set between approximately 1750 and 1950) are books on manners and etiquette. There are tons of them, especially in the Victorian period, and they provide insight that you will never get from a novel, a scholarly history or even diaries of the period. A guide to etiquette tells you two things: what people were encouraged to do, and what they were forbidden to do. The second makes much more interesting reading.

This is also true of statutes and laws and proclamations. Here’s an example from the government of the city-state of Nürnberg in the 15th century:

SINCE the honorable council has been definitely and credibly informed that day and night, within and without the city, also on all sides in and before the forest, many and various sins, especially of unchastity, are committed without restraint or shame, tempting the vengeance of God, and likely to bring injury to good people, THE COUNCIL FORBIDS any woman of the town or other woman to commit unchastity with a man […] within a radius of half a mile of the city, except upon the Meadow, and in addition under the Lesser Bridge, there alone and nowhere else: this the council will suffer for the prevention of greater evil…

Nürnberger Ratsverordnung 1480

You notice how the city council has pretty much given up on all-out abstinence.  They know that they can never stop the fooling around, but they are going to try to corral all those young women of loose moral fiber (men, apparently, aren’t the problem) into specific places, at specific times. In case the good men of the council need to find them.

In short: if an individual or a group of individuals lays down laws and in the process devotes a lot of print to how awful and unacceptable behavior X is, that is a strong indication that a lot of X is going on.

Here’s another example, this one from Decorum: A Practical Treatise on Etiquette and Dress (1882) about how one should be behave (or not behave) at a Christening:

For a guest to show any annoyance if a child cries loudly, or is in any way troublesome, is the height of rudeness. Remarks or even frowns are forbidden entirely, even if the infant screams so as to make the voice of the clergyman entirely inaudible. Etiquette requires that the babe be praised if it is shown to the guests, even if it is a little monster of pink ugliness.

Now the question must be: where to find these valuable manuals on manners. And I’m going to tell you. On Thursday, in my monthly column at Writer Unboxed.